Winning the world: Carey and the modern missionary movement

ENGLAND IN THE 1790s was in the grip of a mixture of fear and excitement: fear, because just across the Channel in France a revolution had not only overthrown the monarchy, but seemed bent on destroying the Christian religion as well; mounting excitement, because Christians felt nonetheless that these upheavals might herald great events. Reports from France and later from Italy suggested that the days of the Roman Catholic Church—the Roman ‘Babylon’ to English Protestants—might be numbered. Further afield. Captain James Cook’s voyages had made Englishmen aware of exotic lands scarcely known before.

In England itself, Christians were praying. Starting in 1784, first Baptists and then other nonconformists throughout the Midlands had been meeting for one hour on the first Monday of every month to pray for a revival which would lead to the spread of the gospel ‘to the most distant parts of the habitable globe.’ Confronted by political upheaval, widening geographical horizons and the new currents of spiritual life brought by the Evangelical Awakening, committed Christians began to suspect that God was about to do something radically new. Was the day prophesied in the Bible drawing near, the day ol Christ’s return? A young Northamptonshire shoemaker named William Carey believed that it was, if only God’s people persevered in their new commitment to prayer and began to translate that commitment into action.

Carey had few obvious qualifications for the role he was about to fulfil. He was born in 1761 to a poor weaver in the villageof Paulerspury. Largely self-educated, Carey became an apprentice shoemaker and, under the influence of a fellow apprentice, abandoned his Anglican family background to identify himself with the nonconformists. He was baptized in 1783 and two years later became the pastor of a small Baptist church, supplementing his meagre stipend with school-teaching and work as a journeyman shoemaker.

From his boyhood Carey had been a voracious reader. At about the time of his baptism he read Captain Cook’s Voyages—“the first thing that engaged my mind to think of missions,” he later recalled. Above his work-bench hung a world map which he annotated with all the information he could discover regarding the different countries of the non-Christian world. The spiritual state of those countries became his preoccupation. His friend Andrew Fuller records how Carey’s heart ‘burned incessantly with desire for the salvation of the heathen.’

Few Christians of his day shared Carey’s burning sense of responsibility for the millions who had never heard about Jesus Christ. At the fraternal meeting of the Northamptonshire Association of Baptist ministers in 1785, Carey raised for discussion the question, ‘Was not the command given to the Apostles, to teach all nations, obligatory on all succeeding ministers to the end of the world, seeing that the accompanying promise was of equal extent?’ This was a novel interpretation of Jesus’ command to preach the gospel to the world.

Protestants had always insisted that the office of apostle had been given forth? first century only, and that it was to the apostles that the Great Commission had been given. If God chose to convert the heathen, he would have to do so by conferring the same miraculous gifts which had accompanied the preaching of the gospel in the apostolic age and had died out with its passing. Carey’s impertinent question therefore received a less than enthusiastic response.

Faced with such complacency, Carey began in 1788 to plan a pamphlet setting out his conviction that the commission to ‘preach the gospel to every creature’ was obligatory on all Christians for all time; it was therefore the ‘bounden duty’ of the church in his day to attempt to bring the message of salvation in Christ to the whole world. Even Carey’s closest ministerial associates - Andrew Fuller, John Sutcliff and John Ryland - still raised objections ‘on the ground of so much needing to be done at home, etc.’, yet they urged him to get his pamphlet written. It eventually appeared on 12 May 1792 under the elaborate title An Enquiry into the Obligations of Christians, to use Means for the Conversion of the Heathens: in which the religious state of the different nations of the world, the success of former undertakings, and the practicability of further undertakings, are considered.

The key words in the title were ‘Obligations'and ‘Means.’ If the command of Christ to preach the gospel to every creature was still binding, and if the biblical prophecies were true which spoke of God’s purpose being to extend the kingdom of his Son among men, then, argued Carey, all Christians ought ‘heartily to concur with God in promoting his glorious designs.’

In their praying together, Christians had begun to fulfil the first condition for the outpouring of God’s Spirit. What was now required was for them to do something about obtaining what they were praying for. It was no good sitting back expecting some miracle of providence to transport them across the world and equip them with foreign tongues. No, those Christians who had caught the missionary vision should organize themselves into a society to send missionaries and support them in their evangelistic work.

The Enquiry may have convinced the intellect, but Carey needed to move Christian hearts as well as persuade Christian minds. His opportunity came on 30 May 1792 when he was to preach to the Northamptonshire Baptist Association at Nottingham. Carey chose as his text words from Isaiah: ‘Enlarge the place of thy tent, and let them stretch forth the curtains of thine habitations: spare not, lengthen thy cords, and strengthen thy stakes . . .’ Carey saw a parallel between the centuries-old plight of the exiled nation of Judah-apparently forgotten by God-and the unproductive and desolate church of his own day; in the biblical promise of a new and wider destiny for Judah lay the promise of countless new members of the Christian family to be drawn from all over the world. Once again, however, Carey insisted that God’s promise was also his command. God was about to do great things by extending the kingdom of Jesus throughout the nations, and therefore Christians must attempt great things in taking the gospel to the world: ‘Expect great things from God. Attempt great things for God.’

John Ryland found Carey’s exposition so forcible that he would not have been surprised ‘if all the people had lifted up their voice and wept.’ Yet when it came to the business meeting the following morning nobody was willing to make a proposition. Carey seized Andrew Fuller by the hand in desperation, inquiring whether ‘they were again going away without doing anything?’ That was all that was required. Before the meeting dispersed the following resolution had been recorded in the minutes: ‘Resolved, that a plan be prepared against the next Ministers’ meeting at Kettering, for forming a Baptist Society for propagating the Gospel among the Heathen.’ The ‘Particular Baptist Society for the Propagation of the Gospel amongst the Heathen’—or, the Baptist Missionary Society, as it became known—was duly formed at Kettering on 2 October 1792.

‘so many obstacles’

William Carey landed in India at Calcutta with his wife and four children on 7 November 1793. If he had any illusions about the magnitude of his task, they were quickly dispelled. Though agreeably surprised by the readiness of the Hindus to listen to Christian preaching, Carey soon realized that the caste system — ‘perhaps . . . one of the strongest chains with which the devil ever bound the children of men’—would prove a formidable obstacle to a Hindu being converted.

Discouragements accumulated rapidly. Money was short. By January 1794 Carey’s wife was already exhibiting signs of the mental illness which was to last for the rest other life, and in September of that year they lost their third son with dysentery. Carey’s missionary colleague, John Thomas, took to living in grand style and fell into debt.

In 1795 Carey had his first taste of criticism from domestic supporters. Faced with an almost total absence of financial supplies from England, Carey had accepted a post as manager of an indigo factory. This provided him and his family with a regular means of support, and also money to spare to devote to missionary purposes. Some English Baptists, however, were quick to criticize Carey for ‘engaging in affairs of trade’, and even his associates on the home committee dispatched a letter ‘full of serious and affectionate caution.’

The pages of Carey’s journal reflect his mounting sense of discouragement. ‘When I first left England,’ he wrote in April 1794, ‘my hope of the conversion of the heathen was very strong; but among so many obstacles it would utterly die away, unless upheld by God, having nothing to cherish it.’ Carey came to rely increasingly on the promises of the Bible: ‘Yet this is our encouragement, the power of God is sufficient to accomplish everything which he has promised, and his promises are exceedingly great and precious respecting the conversion of the heathens.’

Carey had to wait seven years to see the promise of God come to fruition in his first converts. On 22 December 1800 at Serampore, the Danish settlement which had been the home of the mission since the previous January, four Hindus came to faith in Christ. One of them, Krishna Pal, was baptized the following Sunday; the others followed later.

William Ward, who, together with Carey and Joshua Marshman, now made up the famous ‘Serampore Trio’, wrote jubilantly in his journal: ‘Brother C. has waited till hope of his own success has almost expired: and after all. God has done it with perfect ease! Thus the door of faith is opened to the gentiles; Who shall shut it?’ At first, few followed the example of Krishna Pal and the others, but by 1821 the missionaries had baptized a total of 1,407 converts, about half of whom were Indian nationals.

Ahead of his time

William Carey never returned to his native land. By the time of his death in 1834, the missionary movement from Britain had acquired a dynamic far greater than the impetus deriving from its original power. Yet it would be wrong to cast Carey in the role of a pioneer overtaken by the movement he initiated. Rather, he was a forerunner whose missionary vision displayed a breadth and boldness which frequently embarrassed his contemporaries and immediate successors. At the heart of that vision was the conviction that the proclamation of the gospel of Jesus Christ was the chief duty of the church and the only hope of salvation for the world.

Carey discovered from his early ventures in missionary preaching that denigrating Hinduism or Islam was counterproductive, and accordingly urged younger missionaries to ‘keep as close as possible to the pure gospel of Jesus.’ Victorian missionaries retained Carey’s confidence in the power of a simple, evangelical gospel, but did not always heed his warnings against adopting too negative a stance towards other religions.

Carey was convinced that the work of evangelism in India was dependent on the translation of the Bible into the major Indian languages. The translated Bible would be an evangelistic force in its own right, leading to ‘the extinction of immorality and oppression, and the establishment of liberty, righteousness and peace.’ As it happened, such confidence was misplaced, but it did provide the inspiration for a translating achievement which no individual has ever repealed.

In 1806 Carey published proposals for translating the Bible into all the major Oriental languages. Even Andrew Fuller was sceptical, fearful that ‘by aiming at too much we may accomplish the less.’ Nonetheless, Carey embarked on his grandiose project, with the assistance of Marshman and Ward. By 1826 Carey could claim primary responsibility for the translation of the entire Bible into six Oriental languages, and of parts of it into a further twenty- four languages. The Serampore translations were far from perfect, but they established the pattern for what has been one of the primary emphases of world evangelism ever since: the task of making the Bible available to everyone in their own language.

Carey’s literary endeavours were not, however, confined to the Bible. ‘The Trio’ also devoted their energies to translating and editing of sacred Hindu literature and to the compilation of grammars and dictionaries. Carey justified this policy by appeal to the example of Paul, who was able to employ his knowledge of Greek philosophy to good evangelistic effect when preaching in Athens. Missionaries, he believed, must be equipped to meet the educated Hindus on their own ground. Marshman also commented how galling it must be for Satan to see the profits from the publication of the ‘vile and destructive fables’ of Hindu literature being devoted to the work of Bible translation.

But Christians in England did not share this enthusiasm: such secular projects were, in Fuller’s view, ‘monstrous undertakings’ which diverted effort from more spiritual priorities. The literary undertakings of the Serampore missionaries were motivated by a confidence that the spread of general knowledge throughout India would loosen the bonds of Hindu ‘superstition’ and thus promote the advance of the Christian gospel. Education was therefore a proper part of the missionary’s work, for Hinduism had imprisoned Indian minds as well as Indian souls.

The vision of capturing the rising generation for Christ inspired the Trio to found schools, from 1800 onwards, for Indian children. Carey and his colleagues were pioneering a tradition of missionary involvement in education which has been of major significance throughout the Third World. In almost every case, such involvement originated in the same evangelistic ambition as motivated Carey.

These hopes have rarely been fulfilled; they were not fulfilled in India, and it was not long before voices both in India and in England were dismissing educational work as futile. In the long term, missionary education in India and Africa has had a consequence which Carey could never have foreseen: the recipients of mission education have been the pioneers of Indian and African independence.

A national church

The most enduring educational achievement of the Serampore Trio was the foundation in 1818 of Serampore College. Marshman was the driving force behind the project, but all three members of the Trio shared the vision which was set out in the college prospectus: ‘If the gospel stands in India, it must be by native being opposed to native in demonstrating its excellence above all other systems.’

The primary goal of the college was to train Indians to be missionaries to their own people. However, the educational opportunities of the college were open to all, whether Christian or not. Carey was impressed by how many of the leaders of the Protestant Reformation had been scholars, whose Christian learning gradually transformed the thinking of Catholic Europe.

Serampore College was intended to unleash ‘the Reformation of India.’ But the Trio’s broad conception of a literary and scientific education founded on Christian principles found no echo in the minds of their superiors and supporters in England. English Baptists, who showed little enthusiasm for their own theological colleges, showed even less of an inclination to support a college in India which placed such emphasis on ‘unspiritual’ knowledge.

In terms of the exalted ideals of its founders, Serampore College was a failure. But its failure must not be allowed to overshadow the significance ofCarey’s motivating belief that India could be evangelized effectively only by Indians. This view was apparent in embryo in the Enquiry pamphlet of 1792, and by 1817 was fully explicit: ‘India will never be turned from her idolatry to serve the true and living God', Carey wrote to John Ryland, ‘unless the grace of God rest abundantly on converted Indians to qualify them for mission work, and unless, by those who care for India, these be trained for and sent into the work. In my judgement it is on native evangelists that the weight of the great work must ultimately rest.’

After the baptism of Krishna Pal in 1800, the missionaries set out to encourage his gifts ‘to the uttermost so that he may preach the Gospel to his countrymen', and Pal duly became an evangelist first in Calcutta, and then in Assam. By the date ofCarey’s death in 1834, the Serampore Mission had founded nineteen mission stations, manned by fifty ‘missionaries’, of whom only six had been sent out from Europe. Carey was deeply committed to giving responsibility to national Christians, thereby anticipating the principles of Henry Venn, Secretary of the Church Missionary Society from 1841 to 1872, who insisted that the goal of Western missions was to create national churches which were self-supporting, self-governing and self-extending.

Later in the nineteenth century, the ideals of Carey and Venn were eclipsed as missions succumbed to the influence of European colonialism and racialism. Indeed, even in Carey’s own day, other missionaries criticized Serampore for relying so heavily on Indian nationals. History has largely vindicated Carey’s view: countries where the church is strongest today are generally those where national Christians were encouraged from an early date to be evangelists to their own and neighboring peoples.

Lasting legacy

In his Enquiry, Carey had expressed the view that missionaries ought to take ‘every opportunity’ of doing good to the people to whom they were sent. Once in India, Carey was as good as his word, ready to engage in such diverse activities as translations of Hindu literature, educational work, medical care, attempts to improve agricultural methods, and political agitation for the removal of inhumane practices such assati (the custom of burning widows alive on their husbands’ funeral pyres). Carey’s ‘advanced’ conception of missionary work probably contributed to the unhappy estrangement between the Serampore missionaries and the Baptist Missionary Society which marred his later years. Carey himself regarded all aspects of his work as a direct response to the command of Christ ‘to endeavour by all possible methods to bring over a lost world to God.’ Nothing less was required if God’s purpose was to be fulfilled — to destroy evil and establish the kingdom of Jesus among men. CH

By Brian Stanley

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #9 in 1984]

Next articles

Organizing for mission

A chronology of early British mission organizations.

the Editors

Salvation Army

William and Catherine Booth and the Salvation Army.

Cyril Barnes

An African way: the African Independent churches

Understanding the emergence of independent African churches.

Michael Harper

Releasing the Spirit: the Pentecostals

How Pentecostals came to form a third strand of Christianity.

Michael Harper
Show more

Subscribe to magazine

Subscription to Christian History magazine is on a donation basis

Subscribe

Support us

Christian History Institute (CHI) is a non-profit Pennsylvania corporation founded in 1982. Your donations support the continuation of this ministry

Donate

Subscribe to daily emails

Containing today’s events, devotional, quote and stories